Suit says San Bernardino deputies are seizing legal cannabis cash from armored vehicles

A Pennsylvania-based company that transports cash for legal marijuana dispensaries has accused federal authorities and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department of illegally seizing cash proceeds from state-licensed cannabis businesses.

Empyreal Logistics filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court this month, claiming the operations are tantamount to “highway robberies.” The plaintiff’s attorney, Dan Alban of the Institute for Justice, calls it one of the most egregious cases of civil forfeiture abuse he’s ever seen.

Empyreal has been pulled over by law enforcement three times in the past year, each time losing large sums of cash to law enforcement. The first stop was in Dickinson County, Kansas in May of 2021. An Empyreal armored vehicle was then pulled over in Barstow, California in November and in Rancho Cucamonga the following month. According to the lawsuit, an audio recording captured DEA agent Bryan Wheeler telling a Kansas sheriff’s deputy to “crush” every Empyreal vehicle. “We’ll start taking them all down at once,” he allegedly said.

The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department has responded in court, claiming the more than $1 million seized is evidence in an ongoing money laundering and illicit drug dealing investigation. The FBI has repeated those claims. Empyreal’s legal challenge is “no more than a special interest crusade against the lawful civil forfeiture process and a blatant attempt to interfere with ongoing local criminal investigations,” said San Bernardino Sheriff Shannon Discus in an opposition motion. But, so far, none of the agencies have provided evidence of illegal activity.

San Bernardino authorities partner with the federal government’s IRNET program, which allows them to receive up to 80% of civil forfeiture proceeds. Civil forfeiture has faced criticism from civil rights groups in recent years. In March, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles was forced to return millions of dollars – some of which belonged to licensed pot dispensaries – after it failed to prove a crime had been committed.

Alban says the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department is taking advantage of conflicting state and federal cannabis laws. While marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, President Joe Biden previously promised to allow states to continue crafting and enforcing their own marijuana laws.

The Los Angeles Times says it reached out to the U.S. Department of Justice to find out whether the Biden administration permits cash seizures from state-legal marijuana businesses. DOJ did not respond.